Peder Hill talks about the effects of anger on children and what he’s learned about being a dad.
What’s about to happen, along with moments like it, may hurt your child forever.
Eight minutes till the bus comes. You sweet son is way behind schedule because, instead of eating his cereal, he’d secretly been playing with his Star Wars cards. Now, not only is he un-miffed by the rush you keep telling him you’re in, he refuses to put on his jacket. And it’s freezing outside. Your voice gets steadily thinner as the seconds tick and you tensely wait for him to dress. Then, unbelievably, he sits down, and casually pulls his cards back out. Four minutes left. You can’t believe he’s ignoring you. Dad explodes.
Anger is embedded in all of us. It lurks under our skin and can boil out at what should be the most innocuous of moments. It is perhaps the darkest part of our evolutionary inheritance, a once irreplaceable tool that preserved our ancestors as they roamed the African savannah or slogged their way across the Bering Strait. Anger can, for example, scare the crap out of a potentially dangerous a-hole, or help mobilize the group for collective action. It can save you from being eaten.
Anger goes something like this: event happens, adrenaline flows, face flushes, brows stiffen inward and up, and your whole body clenches while you raise yourself to full height and square off on target. There’s occasionally a dangerous impulse to lash out. And nearly always a feeling of potency. One soon replaced by sadness, regret, and self-loathing when you see the look of hurt in your child’s face.
Uncontrolled parental outbursts detrimentally affect children in several ways: first, children internalize its lesson on how to treat people and become aggressive themselves; second, you can steadily destroy your emotional bond with the child you love so deeply. For while you’re angry you suffer what’s referred to as a “loss of self-monitoring capacity and objective observability.” The blindness of rage. Dad becomes idiot. Or worse. Not only do you endanger your relationship, what you say and do in rage may permanently damage your child’s self-esteem—the very bedrock of their lifelong personal growth and happiness.
What’s more, anger rarely improves a child’s long-term behavior. But there is an upside. You can teach your kids to express anger in a healthy way by learning to do so yourself.
Anger Management Toolkit
Parental anger has typical triggers. Maybe your boy did something you find totally unacceptable, or you feel disrespected. Or both. And anger often surges from the pure frustration of not knowing how to manage a situation after the usual steps have failed. With a stern face, you gave the old warning count: one, two…but instead of the jacket going on, out comes Yoda.
If you blow up for no apparent reason, you need to do some soul searching. The anger may, for example, be mixed up with feelings of personal inadequacy, an explosive reaction that saves you from having to embrace your own perceived failures. To manage the anger, you’ll need to understand the cause. Look honestly, look deep. And remember that we all make tons of mistakes and have our weaknesses and our plain crap days. You want to know what type of men can overcome them: heroes.
Prevention through self-awareness
Angry episodes are far more likely when you’re hungry, tired, sick or stressed out. Our ability to maturely deal slides precipitously as our resources are tapped. So proactively avoid such situations. Of course that’s not always possible, so also be aware of your body’s signals that anger is building—let them be clanging warning bells that you’ll soon need to either take a time out or, with all your agitated might, strive to express your anger in a healthy way.
Healthy expression involves clearly expressing how you’re feeling without accusing, humiliating or using damaging words. It helps to stick with non-accusatory I-statements.
You force the jacket in his hand while yelling. “Put this on right this second! What are you thinking? Being able to catch the bus is part of school. What are you, in kindergarten?”
You kneel down to look your son in the eyes. “Hey, I’m worried you’ll miss the bus. And I’m also a little sad and angry because I feel you’re not really listening to me. I need you to help me.”
And anger needs to be expressed. Unexpressed anger siphons off in passive-aggressive behavior or builds up inside you until the furnace explodes.
In addition to communicating respectfully, keep things in perspective. Being late for the bus isn’t the end o’ worldo. He won’t grow into a bus-missing criminal. But if you’re abusive, he may just end up becoming a bully. Treat your children with respect and they’ll learn to treat others the same way.
What you should never do when angry
- Never yell.
You’ll fail here. But if your voice starts rising, let it be a warning bell that you’re lurching toward the idiot side of the pool. Take a short time out, even a few moments, to calm down, think things over, process your feelings and put things in perspective.
- Never dole out punishment when you’re angry.
A loss of self-monitoring capacity leads to moronic trigger-happy justice. Wait until you’re calm and clear-headed before considering repercussions. Not letting your kid eat sugar for a month probably won’t teach him any useful lessons, except how stubborn and random you can be.
- Never use violence.
Never. You can deeply damage your child, not to mention your relationship.
- Never destroy your child’s self-esteem.
Their lifelong happiness depends on it.
To tap into the latest of Peder Hill’s man-friendly articles on fatherhood, just follow him on Twitter @PederHill.
Future articles in the queue:
Your Child’s Brain In Nature
Really? Worse Than Stranger Danger?
Sacrifices You Should And Shouldn’t Make For Your Kids
Everything Kids Learn Playing An Instrument
The Long, Slow Death By Twinkie
Also from Peder Hill: Salsa Dancing, a Garter Snake, a Love Triangle, and Honor Among Modern Men
photo: geomangio / flickr